By Michael Sudhalter
To the untrained eye, it would make more sense for the Houston Astros to have their top affiliate 20 miles away in Sugar Land than 1,764 miles northwest of Minute Maid Park, in Fresno, Calif.
But the truth is both organizations are doing well without each year, and there’s not much of a possibility that Sugar Land would become the home of a Major League Baseball affiliate.
The Skeeters compete in the Atlantic League, an independent professional baseball league where players can sign with any MLB affiliate or international professional league at any time.
Sugar Land set an Atlantic League attendance record, and the Skeeters are one of the Top 10 most successful minor league franchises at the box office – independent or affiliated.
“I have had no conversations with Jim about a AAA affiliate,” said Skeeters owner and Houston-based business owner Bob Zlotnik, who also owns about five percent of the Astros. “It would not make financial sense currently.”
The level of baseball in the Atlantic League is comparable to affiliated Triple-A.
The difference is that players in affiliated ball are coming up through the system, while half of the players in the Atlantic League have played at least a few games at the MLB level.
According to Atlantic League president Rick White, more than 100 players have gone from the Atlantic League back to MLB, and another 700 have returned to affiliated ball.
In affiliated ball, the players from the affiliate can only go directly to the parent club, unless the parent club trades them to another organization.
Owners of independent league teams and coaches/managers have more freedom in running their organizations.
MLB affiliates are run to the tune of the parent organization’s leadership, with the tradeoff that the big league club picks up the tab for salaries, uniforms and equipment.
Player salaries can range anywhere from $1,500-$3,000 per month.
From an on-the-field perspective, independent ball can be more flexible.
Case-in-point: then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig ordered a study on “speed of play” and almost a decade later, no rules have been changed. The Atlantic League did the same thing and implemented adjustments within a season.
SUGAR LAND AFFILIATION IS “HIGHLY, HIGHLY UNLIKELY”
One doesn’t have to move heaven and earth to bring an MLB baseball team to a new city, but it’s not simple either.
An existing MLB affiliate would have to be up for sale and purchased, and the price tag ranges between $20-25 million.
Then, their league would have to approve the relocation to another city. Stadium leases, other considerations and “hoops to jump through” must be considered.
The other option would be the Astros purchasing the Skeeters and moving the rights to Sugar Land.
“It’s highly, highly unlikely,” said Astros media relations manager Steven Grande.
Either way, the affiliate would likely have to pay some type of compensation to the independent league that would be relinquishing an attractive market.
If affiliated ball ever comes to Sugar Land, it will be affiliated with the Astros, since they have territorial rights.
The consensus in the baseball community is that the Astros will re-connect with the the Nolan Ryan-owned Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock, and that Fresno is a temporary situation. Round Rock served Houston’s top affiliate from 2005-2010, and they’ve been with the Texas Rangers ever since.
In the Austin-Round Rock area, the Astros and Rangers compete for fans who may be on the fence.
“Having a team in the suburbs of Houston doesn’t do a whole lot for the franchise,” said former Astros General Manager/former Skeeters advisor Tal Smith. “Most baseball fans in the Houston area are Astros fans. There’s not a whole lot to be gained.”
However, some franchises have affiliates in their metropolitan areas, or nearby, such as Seattle (Tacoma), Boston (Pawtucket) and Texas (Frisco).
“Every single Frisco player is under contract to the major league club, which allows us to promote future MLB stars and to host current MLB players who are rehabbing injuries,” said Jason Dambach, General Manager of the Frisco Roughriders.
A STRONG LEAGUE HELPS THE SKEETERS
One of the concerns for minor league teams – in any sport – is the stability of the league.
The Atlantic League has operated since 1998 and has eight teams, with Sugar Land being the only franchise not located on the Eastern Seaboard.
According to White, the league president, the franchises work together like a neighborhood Homeowner’s Association and make sure everybody is keeping their proverbial yards in shape.
“The clubs hold each other to a very high standard,” White said. “The owners are highly successful business people who are able to absorb short term bumps in the road.”
A former MLB executive for 20 years, White said teams thrive based on the ownership, not whether the franchise is affiliated or independent.
“If you’re a good operator,” White said. “you’ll make money no matter where you are.”
Opening Day Partners (ODP), the Maryland-based group that started the Skeeters, had a majority stake in four of the eight franchises at one point.
After the 2014 season, ODP sold the franchise to Bob and Marcie Zlotnik, who owned a one-third of the Skeeters since 2012.
Today, ODP only owns a majority stake in one team now,
“That is the strategic plan of (ODP chairman) Peter Kirk and his associates, and they’re seeing the fruition of that strategy” White said. “They find a local minority owner, and within a few years, that local investor has sufficient interest in the club.”
White said the Zlotniks have been instrumental in planning to help expand the Atlantic League into the southwest, and more teams could be added by 2017. At that point, White said the league would change its name to better reflect its geography.
With more teams in the southwest, the league could probably create a third division and it would significantly trim Sugar Land’s travel costs.